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“My legs felt like jelly . . . which is probably appropriate, considering the subject”

ESPN's Baxter Holmes' NBA and PB&J saga wins an "Oscar of the food world"

Food and sports have proven to be a winning combination for ESPN the Magazine and NBA writer Baxter Holmes.

Recently, Holmes’ popular Mag feature “The NBA’s Secret Addiction” in the March 27, 2018, Analytics issue won the prestigious James Beard Foundation Award For Excellence in the “Feature Reporting” category at their annual media awards dinner.

Per its mission statement, the James Beard Foundation is a leading organization whose mission is to celebrate, nurture and honor chefs and others leaders making America’s food culture more delicious, diverse and sustainable for everyone. Their annual awards are considered “the Oscars of the food world.”

Judges: A story of substance, not “fluff” (though don’t sleep on a fluffernutter sandwich!)

What made Baxter Holmes’ PB&J feature such a savory read? The James Beard Foundation shared these observations from three judges, who must remain anonymous.

Judge No. 1: “A thoroughly fun read, packed with strong, comprehensive reporting. The story finds substance in what could have been a fluff feature in lesser hands.”

Judge No. 2: “Great intersection of good sports writing and food reporting.”

Judge No. 3: “Fun read. Surprising. Great research. Makes NBA players real.”

Holmes’ sensational piece on the peanut butter and jelly sandwich craze amongst NBA players become the first piece by a sports media company to win a James Beard Foundation Award. Holmes’ story competed against one story each from The New York Times and The Washington Post in the feature reporting category.

Holmes was among those honored at the James Beard Foundation Media Awards dinner in New York City.

What made you pursue the now award-winning “PB&J story?”
Honestly, it started when I was a summer intern on The Boston Globe’s sports desk in the summer of 2008. The Celtics were in the NBA Finals then against the Lakers, and I remember reading somewhere about how Kevin Garnett had the whole team eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Then, in 2013, I was hired by the Globe to cover the Celtics – my first full-time NBA beat reporting job – and as I went around the league, I kept seeing PB&J in locker rooms and team practice facilities. It just didn’t make sense, really, even if athletes tend to have various rituals or superstitions. Before the 2016-17 season, I told my then-editor Henry Abbott that I wanted to look into it, if only to satisfy my curiosity, and he was on board from the start.

How did the James Beard Foundation come across your story?
This is a good example of luck and timing. I honestly didn’t even know there was a media element to James Beard Foundation Awards. I casually knew that they honored restaurants and chefs and that receiving a James Beard Foundation Award was a huge honor. In January, I got a surprise call from a longtime friend, Kevin Pang, who has written some wonderful food-related stories for many publications. He suggested submitting the story.

And when it was announced that my story had won, well, I couldn’t believe it (and I still can’t). My legs felt like jelly as I approached the stage, which is probably appropriate, considering the subject of the story.

What has been the social media reaction to your win?
I’ve been overwhelmed with some really wonderful messages from a wide variety of folks, including many colleagues, friends, family and several people who work in and around the food/beverage community. The central theme of those messages is people telling me how happy they were that the story was recognized because they enjoyed it so much and it helped them feel more of a connection to the players. To me, the reaction speaks to how food connects us to a time, place and the people we share it with and how powerful and universal that connection is, even if it’s for something as a simple elementary school snack.